As Virat Kohli battles Alastair Cook at Vizag, the long shadow of cricket’s princely history falls on India’s newest Test venue. Sriram Veera takes a small jaunt away from the ongoing Test to recount the fascinating tale and intrigue of Indian cricket’s grand old fiddler Maharajakumar of Vizianagaram aka Vizzy.
It’s not known whether Jack Hobbs and Herbert Sutcliffe had spicy chicken curry rice at Vizianagaram in 1931 but they should have sampled it. It’s yummy. Long before Alastair Cook or even Geoffrey Boycott came to India, one of the best opening pairs in cricketing history were in this region. The man responsible for bringing Hobbs and Sutcliffe was Maharajakumar of Vizianagaram, popularly known as Vizzy – a most colourful character in Indian cricket. His is a tale that has everything – personal ambition, tussle among princes, fights with ‘commoner’ cricketers, loads of cash, patronage for cricket. A minor royal who dreamed big.
Vizianagaram is a historic town 50 kms north east of Vizag, famous in the 1700’s for its battles between the kings of Vizianagaram and Bobilli, which also played out as proxy wars between the British and French. It’s well connected to the cricket stadium where incidentally the pavilion, the first structure to go up on the ground that used to be filled with fly-ash in the days gone by, is named after Dr. Vizzy. It could well have been Sir Vizzy for he was knighted by the Queen in the 30s but relinquished it after India became a free country. Vizzy wasn’t even the crown prince, he was the second son of the king and his brother ascended the throne, but he was a man with great ambition, and tagged himself with the unique title ‘Maharajakumar’, son of Maharaja.
The old fort of Vizianagaram of Vizzy’s ancestors still stands, an 8-rupee shared-auto ride from the bus stand. Eateries abound here and there with delectable local fare. There isn’t much to see but the old man guarding the gate tells you to go around the fort, from outside, to see narrow holes in the grounds. It used to be a moat filled with crocodiles to keep the enemies at bay. A trust MANAS runs a school inside the dilapidated fort now, and a small book-fair – books from Peter Drucker to Amitav Ghosh are spread out on a few tables – is currently being held on the eve of the Test. Schoolgirls form a disciplined queue and walk towards the books.
About 10 kms from the fort, stands a Sainik school, which once used to be Vizzy’s palace with a tree-ringed cricket ground. Hobbs and Sutcliffe must have passed the fort to get to this palace where they not only stayed but also batted a bit. It was in Benaras in Uttar Pradesh where Vizzy moved after the death of his father into a palace owned by Vizianagaram royal family that Hobbs hit his first hundred in India. The bat with which he scored those runs is now on display at the Lord’s museum in London. On it, Hobbs has scribbled, “I used this bat in my last Test match versus Australia at the Oval August 1930, also while scoring my first century in India at Benaras, November, 1930”.
Not only did he get the English openers but Vizzy also drafted in the West Indian all-rounder Learie Constantine to come play in India. Those were the days Vizzy was waging cricket wars with his arch rival the prince of Patiala Bhupinder Singh, and Constantine found himself in the thick of battle in 1933 during the final of Moin-ud-Dowlah tournament between the teams owned by the two princes. Vizzy didn’t play that game but he sent a telegram to Constantine, offering to ply with pounds for runs and wickets taken. Vizzy’s side lost the game by three runs but his battle with Patiala prince over Indian cricket had just begun.
Vizzy was up against a man incredibly richer than him. Bhupinder Singh was a prince with a lifestyle that can astonish even those who are used to reading about decadent lives of rich and famous. The writer Khushwant Singh had once waded into the prince on print. “He was a headstrong bully, a debauch, drunkard, womanizer and philanderer”. A proud owner of the famous Patiala necklace as it came to be called that he specially commissioned the Parisian jeweller Cartier and took three years in making — it had 2930 diamonds, weighed 962.25 carats, and included the 7th largest diamond in the world, a 234-carat De Beers. He was the first Indian to own an airplane, had a fleet of Rolls Royce, and the state of Patiala already had India’s first automobile, a French made De Dion Bouton imported in 1892. Also suffice here to say that his sex-tales are mind-boggling, and he reportedly had over 300 concubines.
It’s not known whether Bhupinder indulged in a traditional ritual but the authors of Freedom at Midnight record that his father certainly did – The Maharaja of Patiala would walk out annually, clad just in a diamond breastplate. People would cheer and greet the nude king, a custom that was supposed to ward off evil spirits from the kingdom. Unlike Vizzy, Bhupinder Singh could play pretty decent cricket, and had set his eyes on taking control over the game in the country. But Vizzy could never be accused of being chicken-hearted and was ready to take on the Patiala prince.
Without the patronage of these princes, Indian cricket would have been a non-starter for it was they who ploughed money into the game. The princes sponsored tours from visiting teams, also allowed India to go on foreign tours, and the money helped cricketers and cricket to grow.
Vizzy vs Bhupinder battle started much before India’s first Test tour of England. The Patiala prince had fallen out with Lord Willingdon, the viceroy of India and the patron of Indian cricket board, and Vizzy moved up as the challenger. The cricket historian Mihir Bose put Vizzy in perspective. “In a land where titles were important, Maharajakumar, meaning the son of a king suggested someone connected with royalty but never likely to rule. In English terms he was, at best, a member of the landed gentry. But what he lacked in princely clout he made up in tenacity and an unrivalled capacity for intrigue.”
In 1931, the cancellation of MCC tour of India due to the political situation allowed Vizzy to step in. He organised cricket tours in India and Ceylon, and it was during this time when he somehow managed to convince Hobbs, who has refused several such Indian tours before, and Sutcliffe. Prominent Indian cricketers like CK Nayudu, Indian cricket’s first superstar who used to feature in adverts and whose name was used to promote movies, DB Deodhar and Mushtaq Ali too were part of the team. Incidentally, the current Indian and England team bus rolls past a statue of Nayudu that’s near the entrance to the Vizag stadium every day. Inexplicably, though, the wondrous hitter, who hit three sixes even at the age of 61 in his last Ranji game for Andhra, is caught in a pose as if he is leaving the ball.
It was this tour that had Hobbs, Sutcliffe and Nayudu, that Boria Majumdar who has written several tomes on the Indian cricket history especially covering the early battles in the cricket board and the tussles of these princely patrons, notes as the turning point in Vizzy’s career. Vizzy also cosied up to Willingdon and offered 50,000 rupees to the Indian cricket board – 40,000 was proposed for India’s tour of England in 1932.
But Bhupinder wasn’t done yet. He not only financed the trials for the tour at the Bardari Palace ground in Patiala but also offered to sponsor India’s month-long tour in England. That tilted the scales back in his favour, and he won the first round, as he was named the captain of the touring party. The vice-captaincy was given to a prince Ghanyshyamsinhji of Limbdi and Vizzy was made the ‘deputy vice-captain’. Vizzy promptly withdrew from the tour, citing health reasons, and as it turned out, so did Bhupinder. Thus it came to pass that Maharaja of Porbandar was made the captain but luckily, for India, he realised he was the worst cricketer in the camp, and asked CK Nayudu to captain the team.
However, Bhupinder lost his hold on the cricketing powers by 1933, perhaps due to Lord Willingdon, and in his book, Bose mentions a 1933 meeting where the members of the board had turned against him. The prince though wouldn’t be dissuaded, and threw in the money to win back the hearts. In 1934, during a MCC tour of India, he arranged hunts and shoots for the English, and reportedly won the favour of the captain Douglas Jardine. However Jardine also ended up boosting the profile of Vizzy on that tour praising his captaincy after MCC’s solitary loss of the tour came against Vizzy’s team.
The prince and the Maharajakumar made another valiant effort to seize control over Indian cricket. Patiala donated the trophy for the domestic tournament and decided it would be named after Jamsaheb of Nawanagar, Ranjitsinghji, the famous Indian prince who played for England and had died a year before.
Not to be outdone, Vizzy too donated a trophy, gold plated and made in London, for the same domestic tournament and in an attempt to ingratiate himself further with the viceroy, said it should be named after Willingdon. Vizzy suggested that Ranji hadn’t done much for Indian cricket, and India’s premier tournament shouldn’t be named after him. It was around this time that the teams of Vizzy and Patiala met in the final of Moin-ud-dowlah where even the presence of Constantine couldn’t help Vizzy’s team win as Lala Amarnath came up with a counter-attacking hundred that sealed the game. The domestic tournament also rapidly progressed towards its finale – nameless and without much interest from people who were still hooked on to Pentagular tournaments then. The trophy was to be given away by Willingdon himself but Vizzy had to suffer the ignominy of watching the viceroy hand out the trophy donated by Patiala, and the tournament also named after Ranji.
Vizzy wasn’t the one to be dissuaded by such small episodes though. Even as Patiala was in London for the silver jubilee celebrations for King George V, Vizzy was busy in India, organising a tournament to honour the King. His team, that included CK Nayudu, defeated Patiala’s team and this time around, the viceroy handed out the original Willingdon trophy to Vizzy. His team also had Captain Jack Brittain-Jones who would later become the manager of Indian team that toured England in 1936.
Patiala tried to repeat the same ploy he did before the ’32 tour- offering to host the trials and sponsor the tour but by now Vizzy had moved ahead in the game. He went around the country, canvassing for votes, and managed to secure the captaincy for himself. And unlike the maharaja of Porbandar, he didn’t allow CK Nayudu to captain, and played himself in all the three Tests. This was the tour that also saw Vizzy send back Lala Amarnath on disciplinary grounds.
Vizzy averaged 16.21, his captaincy came under fire, and he cut a sorry figure on the field: “a plumpish, rather hunched figure, perpetually standing in the slips and peering through spectacles at a game he did not seem to understand”.
It wasn’t just Amarnath, CK Nayudu faced Vizzy’s wrath, too. Vizzy had Baqa Jilani abuse Nayudu at the breakfast table, and rewarded Jilani by giving a Test cap. On that tour, he also asked Syed Mushtaq Ali to run out Vijay Merchant but Ali duly informed Merchant when he joined him at the crease.
For all the criticism, though, Vizzy had achieved his dreams. Not only did he manage to captain India in Tests, but he also got knighted on the tour. The once minor royal who couldn’t become the king of Vizianagaram had come a long way.
Meanwhile, his once-arch rival Bhupinder not only lost control of cricket but also was fast losing his virility. He tried various concoctions from Indian doctors and even tried radium therapy from the French doctors, but in vain.
However, Collins and Lapierre nail the issue of his death in their book. “It was not a lack of virility that afflicted the jaded and sated prince. His was a malady that plagued not a few of his surfeited fellow rulers. It was boredom. He died of it.”
In later years, Vizzy became a commentator, selector, board president, and a politician. His commentary too was reportedly dull, captured best by a story told by his fellow commentator Dicky Rutnagur, featuring the West Indian batsman Rohan Kanhai. Tired of Vizzy yakking on about his numerous tiger hunts, Kanhai, supposedly asked him, “How do you kill them?”
“I shoot them..” And Kanhai let it rip: “Really? I thought you just left a transistor radio on when you were commentating and bored them to death.”